Thursday, December 8, 2016

Eaton a Better Fit Than Sale

The buzz from yesterday afternoon/evening at the Winter Meetings was that the Washington Nationals may have given up too much (in the form of young pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning) for Chicago White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton, who has never played in an All-Star Game but who does have, as several people (notably Dave Cameron of Fangraphs) pointed out, a skill set that has made him one of the more valuable players in baseball since he became a full-time regular three years ago. I believe that this trade will work out well for both teams, and that the main reason it ever might look bad for the Nationals is due to the organization that their three young pitchers went to.

First, let's look at things from Washington's point of view. After failing to acquire Chris Sale because they reportedly refused to include Trea Turner* in the deal, Mike Rizzo and his team essentially reworked the same package, subtracting Victor Robles (their best position player prospect), and getting a quality outfielder instead of one of the five to ten best pitchers in the sport. It is a much better trade for the 2017 Nationals, because instead of raiding their deep farm system to add another potent weapon to what is already one of the best starting rotations in baseball, they instead sacrificed less from that system to address a major weakness from their 2016 outfit. The relative value of (effectively) replacing Danny Espinosa's bat with Eaton's will probably mean more to the Nationals than replacing Gio Gonzalez with Chris Sale in the rotation.

*Good on them for refusing to budge on Turner. Even if he dips fifteen to twenty percent from his hair-on-fire rookie half-season, he will be one of the most valuable shortstops in baseball, especially once you factor in paying him the minimum for three more years.

The biggest issue that faced the Nationals in 2016 was that until Turner forced his way into an everyday role, the lineup featured not one, not two, but three black holes, not including the pitcher's spot. Neither Ben Revere (.217/.260/.300, 49 OPS+) nor Michael A. Taylor (.231/.278/.376, 72 OPS+) was even close to adequate as a leadoff hitter. Ryan Zimmerman (.218/.272/.370, 69 OPS+) was the main factor in the Nats getting the worst offensive production from first base of any major league team. And the aforementioned Espinosa's struggles (.209/.306/.378, 81 OPS+) were buoyed by a torrid three-week stretch in June, without which he "hit" .191/.281/.317 with a 67 OPS+. A team cannot have legitimate World Series expectations while trotting out two hitters like that on a daily basis, let alone three. Turner's arrival essentially settled Revere's hash and got rid of the most important of those sinkholes, the top spot in the batting order. But it was important this winter to a) upgrade one more spot in the lineup and b) settle on a position for Turner, a natural shortstop who mostly played center field (for the first time since high school) in 2016. This trade does both.

When it came down to upgrading from either Zimmerman or Espinosa, the easier route was always going to be the latter of the two. Zimmerman may have had a forgettable 2016, but he had two major factors working in his favor; a much stronger career track record, and a contract ($46 million over the next three years, plus a team option for 2020) that is untradeable at this point in time. Espinosa, meanwhile, is a fantastic defensive infielder who stands to make perhaps $5.5 million in 2017, his last year before free agency, but he just cannot make enough contact. If he struck out twenty-five percent less often, he would be incredibly valuable, but unfortunately that is not the case. Now he can either be a terrific utility infielder or a trade piece to potentially upgrade the bullpen or the back end of the rotation.

In the immediate term, this gives the Nationals a top of the order that accounted for 47 steals and 17 triples last year. Translation; pitchers are going to throw a lot more fastballs to the third and fourth hitters in the lineup, who happen to be two pretty good hitters named Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper (in some order). That is a big deal for a team that has struggled to move the line or manufacture runs for years. So this trade gives a big boost to the top of the lineup while not sacrificing anything defensively; Eaton is one of the best right fielders in baseball, and he profiles as average to above average in center, which is where he is most likely to play in Washington.

Eaton's best selling point, however, is his price tag, which Rizzo alluded to in his press conference yesterday without delving into detail. Eaton will make $4 million, $6 million, and $8.4 million over the next three years, with team options in 2020 and 2021 for $9.5 million and $10.5 million, respectively. Even if he drops from a six-win player to a four-win player, that is an incredible discount for a long period of time. Jayson Werth is entering the last year of his contract, and it is reasonable to assume that the Nats are expecting Victor Robles, who finished this year at high-A Potomac as a teenager (he won't turn twenty until mid-May) and hit very well in forty-one games, to become the regular center fielder sometime in 2018. That would give the Nationals two very productive outfielders at a fraction of their value in terms of cost, and as Rizzo said, allows them to use money elsewhere.

What I think that means, which nobody has yet said in print (and which Rizzo did not explicitly say either), is that this move clears enough space for the Nationals to add another Brinks truck full of gold bars to a possible Bryce Harper extension. Yes, USA Today's Bob Nightengale reported early in the winter meetings that Harper and the Nationals were on different planets when it came to the dollar amounts of a potential extension, and that the team was preparing itself to move on from Harper after the 2018 season. By fixing a weak spot for the foreseeable future at a great price (in terms of the contract; we will leave aside the cost in prospects for now), they are in a much better spot to get closer to an offer that Harper and Scott Boras will accept. in 2019 the Nationals will have roughly $107 million committed to four players: Max Scherzer ($42.1), Stephen Strasburg ($38.3), Zimmerman ($18), and Eaton ($8.4). If you go by the average annual value of Scherzer's and Strasburg's contracts ($30 million and $25 million, respectively), that number dips to $81.4 million. The Nationals will also have seven players on the current roster eligible for arbitration that year, two of whom (Anthony Rendon and Tanner Roark) will be entering their final year of arbitration and are not likely to come cheap.* All told, the Nationals will have somewhere between $140-$150 million committed to thirty of the forty spots on their forty-man roster. Five or six of the remaining ten spots will be filled by minimum-salary guys (such as Robles), adding $3 million or so. Let's say that gets them to $150 million, for purposes of easy math. The luxury tax threshold in 2019 will be $206 million, which gives the Nats $56 million to spend on the remaining four spots, including a potential Harper extension whose average annual value would probably touch $40 million but which would more likely be around $30 million in year one. That leaves $26 million to fill out the roster without getting taxed. All this, of course, is assuming that no one else gets traded between now and then, which is a silly assumption. In any case, Eaton's low cost and cost certainty (something that was not the case with, say, Andrew McCutchen) give the Nats more wiggle room to extend a guy who is likely to command a record deal.**

*The other five: Clint Robinson, Blake Treinen, Michael A. Taylor, Joe Ross, and Sammy Solis.

**For those who say Harper isn't worth a mega-deal because he's only had one great season, please remember that only a dozen regular position players in 2016 were younger than Harper, who just finished his fifth full season. Also remember that his Baseball-Reference comps through age twenty-three include Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, and Ken Griffey, Jr., three of the greatest players in the history of the game.

Now that I have spilled 1400 words about the ramifications of acquiring Eaton, let's talk about trading away those three young pitchers. Baseball people generally think that the Nationals gave up a ton, and that this trade will wind up looking bad for them. To that I say yes, they did give up a lot, but a big factor in that is the organization they are going to. The White Sox, thanks to the direction of major league pitching coach Don Cooper (a member of the organization since 1988), have an excellent track record of maximizing the abilities of their young pitchers. Both Giolito and Lopez come with some questions, and I believe that the odds that they fulfill their potential are higher, and perhaps much higher, with the White Sox than they would be with the Nationals.

Giolito is currently regarded as the top pitching prospect in all of baseball, a 6'6" giant of a 22-year-old with plus velocity and a knee-buckling curve. The Nationals altered his delivery in 2016, and although he jumped all the way to the majors, he was largely unimpressive in his twenty-one innings there, striking out just eleven batters while issuing a dozen free passes and giving up eighteen runs. That is a small sample size, but Giolito was not throwing as hard as he reportedly can, averaging 93 miles per hour and scraping 96. Furthermore, his fastball was pretty straight and thus more hittable. Supposedly the Nats soured on him internally this year, at least with regard to him being a future ace, and that made him more available for a potential trade. Now he is going to perhaps the best possible organization to complete his development. It is important to remember that his growth curve would likely have been different had he remained in Washington.

Lopez, meanwhile, had a much better showing at the major league level, punching out forty-two in forty-four innings against against twenty-two walks and twenty-seven runs. He throws harder (96-99 with more movement), but command and delivery issues have a lot of people believing that he eventually winds up in the bullpen as a lights-out relief option. Again, if he graduates with honors from Cooper College he will probably stay in the rotation, but that was a much more open question with Washington.* Dunning was a first-round pick who didn't even start in college (because of the glut of options available at Florida), whose ceiling is probably a back-end starter, and beyond that I cannot comment much because I have never seen him pitch.

*This is not to denigrate the Nationals' pitching coaches at all, just to point out the excellent track record and long tenure of Cooper and the White Sox.

There you have it. In the short term, this is a trade that helps the Nationals in a number of important ways, making them substantially better for 2017 and 2018, and providing more relative value than adding Chris Sale to the rotation for the same package (plus Robles) would have. Any long-term assessment of this trade needs to factor in the following: Mike Rizzo has never been hoodwinked yet; the trio of pitching prospects are going to a better place for their careers than arguably any other franchise; and the move may open up an easier path for the Nationals to keep their superstar hitter around beyond 2018. In that sense, the odds of this trade working out for the Nationals are much better than they appear at first glance.